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Mar 25, 2005

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


The Kentucky Derby media polls arrived on my desk Monday morning at

 Oaklawn Park, Hot Springs, Ark., and, sure enough, just like last year when

 Smarty Jones was completely ignored up to Derby Day, the Oaklawn-based

runners were tossed out with the bathwater.

Of the dozen polls checked, nine -- that's right, nine -- had Sun King on top.

 Obviously, I'm missing something here. Yes, I know he won the Tampa Bay Derby

 last weekend by three lengths (earning a whopping 91 Beyer number).

I can't remember the last time the Tampa Bay Derby winner was received

 with such enthusiasm by my colleagues in the press.

Oops. Sorry. I almost forgot. Sun King is trained by Nick Zito, the media's

 best friend, and a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby back in the early '90s.

But the thing is...I'm not sure quite how to say this, but if Sun King finishes

 with 10 lengths of Rockport Harbor in the Kentucky Derby, I'll give up my

 first-born. You know what? Sun King isn't even the best 3-year-old in the

Zito barn. Every rocket scientist I know will tell you that George Steinbrenner's

 Bellamy Road is Saint Nick's best Derby prospect.

One other thing you need to remember about Sun King.

Sun King was an also-ran last Fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and, the last

 I looked, nothing that came out of that race has run worth a dam.

Check it out. Wilco? Nowhere in the San Felipe. Roman Ruler? Nowhere in the

 San Felipe. And, sorry to say, Afleet Alex was dead last in the Rebel, a sorry

situation after which it was discovered he raced with a lung infection.

Said one press box wag: "Lung infection? He must have caught the lung

infection somewhere between the half-mile pole and the quarter-pole!"

But if his people say Afleet Alex has a lung infection, that's good enough for me.

 More importantly, it was good enough for jockey Velazquez, because his

agent, Angel Cordero Jr., called trainer Ritchey first thing Sunday morning, and

told Ritchey he (Velazquez) wants to ride Alex back in the Arkansas Derby.

What really hurt was that there was $500,000 bet to show on Alex in the

 Rebel, and a buck-thirty on the other five horses. Some folks took a bath, but

 the Mad Bomber assures me it wasn't him.

"I don't play ($100,000 a pop) to show when there are three good horses in

 a race," he says, "...only when there's one."

The Rebel turned out to be pure Hollywood.

First of all, Rockport Harbor was late getting to the infield paddock, causing

 rival trainers to get very upset. "If this were a claimer," said Bob Holthus,

 the trainer of Greater Good, "they'd scratch the sonofagun."

Finally, when Rocky did appear, you would have thought it was the Kentucky Derby.

 Trainer Servis, clad in a bright yellow sport jacket, led an entourage of

20-something people down the racetrack to the paddock, as the crowd

 cheered. The only thing missing was the theme from Rocky.

Most folks thought that Team Rocky would be fined, but the stewards decided

no discipline was necessary. Obviously, they have a good sense of theater.

Actually, there were legitimate reasons for Rocky's tardiness.

When asked about it at my seminar the next morning at the beautiful

Longshot Saloon, jockey Elliott paused briefly, and then responded:

"Rocky wan't late. The other horses were early."

Personally, I believe Rocky was late -- contributing to a 20-minute delay -- because

 trainer Servis -- to his credit -- was giving the national television audience

extra time to locate ESPNnews on their cable.

Anyway, back to the race.

Rocky was unprepared for the start. His head was turned sideays, and he

wasn't standing right with his head pointed down the track. As a result, he

stumbled badly first jump, then got whacked by Copy My Notes,
who, in an incredible piece of irony, was the winner's uncoupled stablemate.

What's next was out of Ripley. Rocky rushed right to the lead with a

Secretariat-like three-wide on the first turn, widened through a :23 second quarter,

 and held on to the final yards when Greater Good, who had a perfect trip, nailed

 him by a short half-length.

Give all the credit to Greater Good and his connections for winning the Rebel.

 But there's no question Rocky, who was -- in his trainer's estimation -- a mere

 65 per cent for the race, was the best horse...and he'll be a short price for

 the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

I just read in Wednesday's Form that the Kentucky Derby is wide open, and that

 the favorite will be no better than 8-1.

My view? Glad you asked. Rockport Harbor will win the Arkansas Derby by

daylight, and he'll go to the Kentucky Derby as the favorite at about 3-1.

In the meantime, I'm wondering why Greater Good doesn't get a look in the

media polls. After all, he now has won the two Arkansas stakes -- the Southwest

and the Rebel -- that Smarty did, beating better horses in the process. In case

 you missed it, Munificence, who was second to Greater Good in the Southwest,

 came back and won a stake at odds-on last weekend at Delta Downs.

Munificence is an interesting story himself. His trainer is Jim Hudson, the same

 Jim Hudson who, as the strong safety for the New York Jets back in 1969,

made the Super Bowl-saving pick two days after his roomie, Joe Namath,

guaranteed the Jets would win.

Back to Afleet Alex for a minute. I have never been a proponent of taking off

 talented no-name riders to put on name riders. The latest example is Afleet Alex.

 Jeremy Rose was 5-2-0 in five starts on Afleet Alex. He was booted off for

 Eclipse winner John Velazquez, who has never won a race at Oaklawn Park (0-10).

Boy, Johnny V. sure moved Alex up, didn't he?

Finally, trainer Servis not only will run the favorite in the Arkansas Derby, he

 will run the favorite as well in the Fantasy, which will be run a day earlier on

 April 15.

In the century-old history of Oaklawn, no trainer has won the track's two

marquee races for 3-year-olds -- the Derby and the Fantasy -- in the same year

 although many of tried, notably Lukas, McAnally and McGaughey.

Don't be surprised if Servis (and Elliott) get the double. Rose Pond won the

Honeybee here last Sunday by five in only the third start of her career. And

she was awesome.

Said rival trainer Sonny Wigginton: "Round Pond is an absolute freak. To make

 the third start of her career against seasoned fillies from top barns...and to

mincemeat them the way she did, shows she's a freak."

Elliott, incidentally, is having so much fun and success in his season-plus at

 Hot Springs, he plans to ride full-time here next year.



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